Karakuri Kaizen:

karakuri doll tea

As the readers of my blog know, I am an ardent student of Toyota Production System (TPS). One of the core philosophies of TPS is kaizen, often translated from Japanese as continuous improvement. It is the idea that one should continuously find ways to eliminate non-value adding activities, and in the process develop oneself and others to get better at kaizen. The idea of kaizen begetting more kaizen. Kaizen is a human capital enrichment philosophy. As Eiji Toyoda, Toyota Motor Corporation President from 1967 to 1982, said – “It is people that make things, and so people must be developed before work can start.

One of the ways Toyota inspire their employees to nurture their creativity is Karakuri Kaizen. It is said that in the early seventeenth century, during the Edo period, European clocks were introduced in Japan. This sparked a wide curiosity amongst the Japanese craftsmen. The idea of developing motion mechanisms with elaborate sets of springs and gears was new to them. This led to the development of karakuri ningyō, or mechanized dolls. These were dolls that moved around and did several tasks such as bring tea to a guest and then bring it back to the owner, or climb a set of stairs. There was even a magician doll that performed a cups and balls routine.

What set the karakuri dolls of Japan separate from the European clockwork mechanism was the humanization of the dolls. The dolls were created with high importance to its physical features such as face, movement of head and limbs; in an effort to the make the doll life-like. Aesthetics was of utmost importance. All the mechanisms were cleverly hidden beneath clothing such that no mechanism was visible from outside. The doll moved around as if it is alive. The karakuri dolls brought fascinated delight to its spectators.

All the motion was achieved using simple springs, gravity and gears. No external power source was used. How does this all relate to the manufacturing floor? One of the challenges that is often posed to an organization is to increase its production. This is often tackled by either hiring more employees or by using automation. Automation is highly attractive even though it is sometimes cost prohibitive. It might make sense that the nonvalue added activities such as transportation and repeated motions could be replaced with a robot. Most modern manufacturing operations are riddled with automation. However, this comes with its own problems. The main one is that the automation becomes the focus of manufacturing rather than the employees. The high cost, large equipment becomes a monument that everything has to work around the monument. It is an expensive way to ensure that the status quo is maintained. To get the most out of the high expense, the new machine is run around the clock increasing the unwanted inventory and it raises the cost of the operation.

This is where karakuri kaizen comes in. Karakuri, as explained before, is a low-cost automation that does not utilize external power resources. It is comparatively small and works solely based on gravity, counterweights, springs, gears etc. The key point of karakuri kaizen is that it should inspire more kaizen. Generally, a challenge is posed to the operators to come up with a means to remove unwanted strain and motion, and to eliminate waste. Normally, this would be task where a heavy part(s) is lifted and moved to another location or where a part is turned around and operated on. The first impulse is to automate the process. This would require an expensive piece of equipment. Karakuri kaizen focuses on solving the problem on hand with what is readily available and using minimal resources. This might be construed as pushing to minimize capital expenditure. However, the most important part is that the operators are being challenge to use their wit and brains. As Fujio Cho, Toyota Motor Corporation President from 1999 to 2005, said – “Human ingenuity has no bounds.” The karakuri mechanism does not become the center of focus. Instead, the operator does. The mechanism generally is such that it can easily be modified if needed, and even replaced with another karakuri. Unlike, a heavy piece of machinery, a karakuri does not become a monument. It is built specifically to achieve a purpose, and thus it is highly customized. It is also designed in-house. The “challenge” portion is a core ingredient for kaizen.

When Toyota started car manufacturing, it did not have a lot of capital or resources. They modified existing machinery to achieve its needs. They first used what they had in-house before going outside for solutions. They relied on their employees to come up with ingenious solutions to their problems. This meant that the solutions were made specifically for their problems. Generally, when an equipment or a software is purchased, it is not always made specific to the need of the customer. The customer often has to work with what was offered. Toyota had to come up with ingenious solutions to solve their problems without spending much capital. The only capital they would come up with was human capital. Even after Toyota became successful, this mindset was maintained.

As Toyota veteran Kazuhiko Furui explained:

Toyota has tried to use as little external power as possible in its car manufacturing since its foundation. Karakuri kaizen is one of the Toyota Way values. Karakuri is a mechanism that uses gravity, springs and gears instead of external power sources to manipulate objects. A karakuri does not always work well on the first try. If something breaks, we rebuild it, trying continuously to make it better, always reforming the mechanism. For us, when we succeed, there is a great sense of achievement: “we did it!” And that brings a drive to try making yet another mechanism. Developing karakuri is also about developing people. 

Final Words:

What is the point of kaizen? The simple answer is often to make things better. If kaizen does not beget more kaizen and if it does not improve the thinking of the persons involved, then it is missing the meaning of kaizen. Kaizen should lead the employees to develop their abilities to see and identify waste, and come up with ways to eliminate waste. It should lead them to second order thinking where they don’t just what is my goal, but also ask what is the purpose of my goal. This means that the employee becomes part of the meta-system rather than just doing what they are told.

I will finish with some fine words from the great philosopher, Immanuel Kant:

The human being can either be merely trained, broken in, mechanically instructed, or really enlightened. One trains dogs and horses, and one can also train human beings. Training, however, does little; what matters above all is that they learn to think. The aim should be the principles from which all actions spring.

In case you missed it, my last post was Weber’s Law at the Gemba:


Looking at Kaizen and Kaikaku:


In today’s post, I will be looking at the “Kaizen” and “Kaikaku” in light of the Explore/Exploit model. Kaizen is often translated from Japanese as “continuous improvement” or “change for better”. “Kaikaku”, another Japanese term, is translated as “radical change/improvement”. “Kakushin” is another Japanese word that is used synonymously with “Kaikaku”. “Kakushin” means “innovation” in Japanese. Kaikaku got more attention from Lean practitioners when the previous Toyota President and CEO, Katsuaki Watnabe said  in 2007- Toyota could achieve its goals through Kaizen. In today’s world, however, when the rate of change is too slow, we have no choice but to resort to drastic changes or reform: Kaikaku

The explore/exploit model is based on a famous mathematical problem. I will use the example from Brian Christian and Tom Griffith’s wonderful 2016 book “Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions”. Let’s say that you are very hungry and do not feel like cooking. Which restaurant should you go to? Your favorite Italian restaurant or the new Thai place that just opened up? Would your decision capabilities be impacted if you are traveling? Sticking with what you know and being safe is the “exploit” model. Trying out new things and taking risks is the “explore” model. The dilemma comes because you have to choose between the two. The optimal solution depends on how much time you have on your hands. If you are traveling and you are at a new place for two weeks, you should try out different things at the beginning (explore). As days go by and you only have a few more days left, you should definitely stick with what you know to be the best choice so far (exploit). Christian and Griffith stated in the book – Simply put, exploration is gathering information, and exploitation is using the information you have to get a known good result.

From an organization’s standpoint, the explore/exploit dilemma is very important. The exploit model is where the organization continues to focus on efficiency and discipline in what they already manufacture. The explore model on the other hand, is focusing on innovation and new grounds. The exploit model does not like risk and uncertainty. The exploit model does not necessarily mean maintaining status-quo or not rocking the boat. The exploit model is getting better at what you already do. One way that I have heard the differentiation between the two explained is like this – exploitation is like playing in the same sandbox and getting better at the games you play inside the sandbox. Exploration is like venturing outside of your sandbox and finding new sandboxes to play with and creating new games.

Some strategies used for the exploit model are:

  • Optimize the organization for current organizational rules and structure
  • Make sure standards are in place and the established rules are followed in order to achieve efficiency
  • Make incremental improvements for existing processes better and still stay within the current organizational structures
  • Keep making more of the current product portfolio

The explore model is about breaking new grounds. Some strategies used for the explore model are:

  • Break away from the current organizational rules and structure
  • Develop new structures to allow for diversity and discovery
  • Make radical improvements to overhaul current processes, rules and structures
  • Add new product portfolios altogether

The exploit model relies on current constraints, rules and structures. The exploration model relies on the willingness to break away from the current constraints, rules and structures. A perfect balance between the two models and oscillating between both models or engaging in both models simultaneously is very important for an organization to thrive. The organizations that can do both are called “ambidextrous”.

The explore/exploit model has some similarities to Kaizen and Kaikaku. Kaizen is about getting better at what we do incrementally. It is a personal development model. Kaikaku, on the other hand, is about breaking the mold and overhauling the organization in some cases. Launching a Lean initiative can be viewed as Kaikaku. Kaizen could be an ideal strategy for exploitation and Kaikaku for exploration. I came across a paper from Yuji Yamamoto called “Kaikaku in Production in Japan: An Analysis of Kaikaku in Terms of Ambidexterity” that further shed light on this. The paper is part of the collection called “Innovative Quality Improvements in Operations”. Yamamoto points out that while Kaizen is incremental; Kaikaku entails large-scale changes to both the social and technical systems of an organization. Kaizen is often viewed as an opportunity and Kaikaku may sometimes be viewed as a necessity. Kaizen is also viewed as a bottom-up activity with autonomy, and Kaikaku on the other hand can be viewed as top-down activity with direction from the top management. Kaikaku may be continual (with definite timelines and stops) and Kaizen is continuous. Kaizen is described as engaging everybody in improvement every day, everywhere in the organization.

Yamamoto discussed data from 65 case studies where Kaikaku activities were implemented at Japanese manufacturing companies. Yamamoto noted that the defining characteristic for Kaikaku based on the studies was that Kaikaku requires everybody’s exploration effort. In the 65 reports, the importance of everyone in the organization having a specific mental mode related to exploration, for instance, a challenging spirit, give-it-a-try mentality, and unlearning, is frequently mentioned. In the Kaikaku activities, managers often encouraged everyone in the organizations to think and act in a more explorative way than they were used to. Apparently, companies used the word Kaikaku as a way to make managers and employees be aware of this mental stance toward exploration.

Yamamoto used the exploit/explore model to further differentiate Kaizen and Kaikaku. The figure below is adapted from Yamamoto. The figure shows different degrees of exploitation and exploration activities. Problem solving with a high degree of innovativeness tends to involve more exploration than exploitation.

K and K

Some key takeaways from Yamamoto’s paper are:

  • Kaikaku and Kaizen are complementary and reinforce each other. Effective Kaizen often has a positive influence on Kaikaku, and Kaikaku can stimulate Kaizen.
  • Employees engaged in iterative problem solving activities in Kaizen and Kaikaku develop exploitation and exploration abilities as part of a learning cycle. The beginning of this learning cycle is about making problems and challenges visible to increase the sense of urgency. Once they are resolved, the results are made visible throughout the organization. The organizations in the case studies created an environment for keeping the learning cycle going with opportunities to engage in improvement and innovation.
  • The participants of Kaikaku activities reflect on and learn from their successes and failures. They achieve a sense of achievement and are motivated to tackle challenges that are even more difficult.
  • Problem solving activities often lead to identifying further improvement opportunities.
  • Some companies in the report used Kaikaku to enhance Kaizen because Kaizen had been slow and reactive. While some other companies initiated Kaikaku to make employees more competent in innovation.

I will end with a Zen quote with focus on when we should be doing more:

You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes a day, unless you are too busy. In that case, you should meditate for an hour a day.

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Hammurabi, Hawaii and Icarus:

Aim for System Optimization with Kaizen:


Kaizen is often translated as “Continuous Improvement” in Japanese and is identified as one of the core themes in lean. In today’s post I am looking at the question – can kaizen ever be bad for an organization?

In order to go deeper on this question, first we have to define kaizen as a focused improvement activity. The question at this point is whether we are optimizing the process. Merriam-Webster defines Optimization as;

Optimization – an act, process, or methodology of making something (as a design, system, or decision) as fully perfect, functional, or effective as possible.

In my opinion, kaizen does not mean to optimize the process to 100% perfection. My point of contention on this is that kaizen should not be about local optimization. Local optimization means to optimize a process so that it is fully optimized without taking the whole system into consideration. This leads to tremendous waste. The local improvement should not cause a problem to an upstream or downstream activity. My best analogy is to work out the upper body without taking the lower body into consideration. This leads to a disproportionately developed body. In a similar vein, Prof. Emiliani views kaizen as a non-zero-sum activity – “everybody wins’!

Let’s look at an example. As part of a kaizen event at a hospital, the intake staff was able to make the client intake process very efficient. They were able to show that their improvement activities resulted in a much shorter time for client intake and they were able to get more clients in through the door. However, this caused more problems at the downstream processes. The staff at these processes were not able to serve the higher number of clients adequately which resulted in higher customer dissatisfaction and staff burn-outs.

Kaizen is a gradual and small incremental change towards the ideal state. The key point here is “ideal state”. How would you define “ideal state”? The “ideal state” means the ideal situation for the organization as a whole. Taiichi Ohno, the creator of Toyota Production System, said that “No standard = no kaizen.” The standard defines the process at its current goal and has three elements;

  1. Takt time – the defined rate of production to meet customer demand
  2. Sequence of work – the defined sequence of work to ensure safety, quality and efficiency
  3. Standard Work in Process – the defined inventory required to ensure that the takt time goal is met

Toyota’s goal is to improve overall efficiency and not local efficiency. This defines the goal of kaizen. Break the current state and create the new standard – while keeping the overall efficiency in mind. Ohno’s favorite way to challenge the current standard is by asking to use fewer operators to achieve the same required output.

Management’s Role:

What is Management’s role in all of this? Management has to lay the framework for everything to function properly. Dr. Deming, the pioneer of continuous improvement activities, says the following;

It is management’s job to direct the efforts of all components toward the aim of the system. The first step is clarification: everyone in the organization must understand the aim of the system, and how to direct his efforts toward it. Everyone must understand the danger and loss to whole organization from a team that seeks to become a selfish, independent, profit center.

Source: The New Economics, Dr. Deming.

Final Words:

It is important to view the improvement activities from a big picture standpoint. Viewing kaizen from a system standpoint is essential. I have always been curious about how the small incremental improvement activities would make a big difference in the end.  I will finish this post talking about the 800 year old Bronze statue of St. Peter holding the keys to Heaven in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

St Peter

It looks like St. Peter is wearing shoes on his right foot and sandals on the left foot. Over eight centuries, pilgrims have been touching his right foot that is more accessible (it sticks out more) and asking for blessings. No one has been rubbing on the foot or sanding it down.  There has been no complaint of vandalism or apparent damage to the statue. The simple act of touching and kissing over time worn the bronze statue down – that St. Peter lost all his toes on his right foot. It is said that the Church started requesting visitors to start touching the left foot more. It appears that the left foot has got a lot of catching up to do.


Always keep on learning…

If you enjoyed this post, you can read more here.

In case you missed it, my last post was Seneca’s “On Shortness of Life”.

Changing the Game – An Olympic Story:


It is the Olympics season right now. One of my favorite stories about the Olympics is about an underdog from Oregon, USA named Dick Fosbury. Fosbury won the gold medal for the High Jump in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. In those days, there were only a few different styles used for jumping. The main one was called the “Western Roll” where the athlete jumps forward with his face downward. Another style was called the “Scissors”, the oldest style of High Jump. This is where the athlete ran toward the bar and moved the legs in a “scissor” fashion to clear the bar. Fosbury chose the Scissors to be his style. His High School coach asked him to stop using the Scissors and to use the “Western Roll”. The Western Roll was the norm in those days and was used by the star athletes. Fosbury found no success with this. He was called the worst High Jumper in his school. He was getting frustrated, and intuitively he came up with a style that was not seen before. Rather than running straight and rolling “forward”, he ran in at an angle and jumped “backwards” which allowed him to move the bottom part of his body away from the bar. In his words;

“I take off on my right, or outside, foot rather than my left foot. Then I turn my back to the bar, arch my back over the bar and then kick my legs out to clear the bar.”


He was able to jump higher and higher with his method. The coach was not sure about the method, and even questioned whether the method was legal. He cautioned Fosbury that he was going to hurt his back. In those days, the athletes jumped into a big pile of saw dust. As luck would have it, Fosbury’s school installed a soft spongy landing pad at that time enabling him to perfect his style.

Fosbury went on to compete in the 1968 Olympics. As 80,000 spectators watched closely, Fosbury rocked back and forth, talking to himself and gaining confidence. It was also interesting to note that Fosbury wore different colored shoes. Fosbury slowly started running toward the bar and did what became to be known as the “Fosbury Flop”. He cleared 7 feet 4 1/4 inches to win the gold medal. His method was counterintuitive at that time. U.S. Olympic Coach Pat Jordan considered the Fosbury Flop to be dangerous and warned that it would “wipe out an entire generation of high jumpers because they will all have broken necks”. But the method was proven to be quite effective and the world of High Jump changed after that. Everybody started imitating him and improving their performance. Today the Fosbury Flop is considered to be the norm. All world record holders since 1980 used the Fosbury Flop to achieve their best performances.

Looking back, the scientists are able to explain that the Fosbury Flop is the ideal method for the high jump. The athlete is able to manipulate his center of gravity through this method to perform much higher (no pun intended) than any other method. Although Fosbury had an Engineering background, he came upon the method by accident. He was making the method work with his tall stature. His frustration with the standard methods of the day led him to find a new method.

Corollary in the Lean World:

The best form of kaizen happens when you are extremely dissatisfied with the current set of standards or if you are extremely lazy and want to find a better way of doing things. The spirit of kaizen is simply the thinking that there is always a better way of doing things. Fosbury was extremely dissatisfied with the methods in his days. In his words;

My assignment was to get over that damn bar. I was bound and determined not to quit. But I had to do something different.”

He knew that there was a better way and he found it. He explained that it was an iterative process. Once the method was proven, everybody wanted to copy it. Fosbury continued;

That day I was not trying to change the world. I was just trying to get over the bar.”

This is an important lesson for the Lean Leaders.

In a similar vein, Toyota started the Toyota Production System as a means to catch up with Germany and America. After the Second World War, Toyota realized that the productivity of the Japanese workforce was much less than their German and American counterparts. They tried to learn the norms of the day by visiting foreign manufacturing plants. But they came up with counterintuitive ways to achieve their goal slowly and steadily. They rearranged their factories to achieve better flow. They limited their work-in-process. They reduced the lot sizes and found ways to perform quick changeovers. For the painting operation, Toyota started using a paint cartridge system so that they can maintain small lot sizes. Toyota’s methods gained the attention of the world through the oil crisis in the 1970’s. Their process, Toyota Production System, became their Fosbury Flop which everybody wanted to emulate.

You can watch the Fosbury Flop performed by Dick Fosbury below.

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Buy the Mountain Side.

Hot Dog!

hot dog

One of my favorite quotes from Eiji Toyoda, former President of Toyota, is;

“Don’t think mechanically. Even a dry towel can produce water when ideas are conceived.”

Eiji was talking about Kaizen. Toyota talks about “There is always a better way”. This is the spirit of kaizen…reaching higher and challenging ourselves to find a better way in everything we do… every single day.

I recently relistened to a Freaknomics podcast called “A Better Way to Eat”. In the podcast, the host Stephen Dubner talked with Takeru Kobeyashi, a Japanese competitive eater now living in America. When Kobi, as he is called by his fans, came into the field, the world record was 25 and 1/8th hot dogs in 12 minutes. Kobi blew the record out of water with his first appearance in the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest, held every July Fourth on Coney Island in New York. Kobi ate 50 hot dogs in the same amount of time, almost doubling the record. The contest has been going on for over 40 years and Kobi completely broke the paradigm. Many people were in denial and some even accused Kobi of doping.

In Dubner’s opinion, Kobi looked at the problem differently thus changing the field of competitive eating forever. The question that others were tackling was – how can I maximize the number of hot dogs I eat? The question that Kobi looked at was – how can I make one hot dog easier to eat?

Putting my Lean glasses on, this made me think about the mass production versus one-piece flow production paradigm. The thinking at that time was to simply eat more hot dogs without analyzing the process. Kobi, however focused on eating one hot dog and making that process easier. Kobi researched the sport and came up with several strategies that gave him a superior edge over the competition. Some of his strategies were to split the hot dog into two and eat with both hands; and the other was to dunk the bun into water, squeeze it into a ball and gulp it down. The splitting of the hot dog came to be known as the “Solomon Method” after the story of King Solomon who settled a maternity dispute by saying that he would cut a baby in half. Several competitors started copying Kobi’s strategies and were able to double their eating intake resulting in improved performances.

In the podcast, Kobi gave the following advice about breaking the more than 40 year old artificial barrier;

I think the thing about human beings is that they make a limit in their mind of what their potential is. They decide I’ve been told this, or this is what society tells me, or they’ve been made to believe something. If every human being actually threw away those thoughts and they actually did use that method of thinking to everything the potential of human beings is great, it’s huge, compared to what they actually think of themselves. That is a factor that…If everyone could use it for everything, everything could be much better.

Final Words:

There is a similar lesson from Jesse Itzler, author of Living with a SEAL: 31 Days Training with the Toughest Man on the Planet. The lesson is as follows;

When your mind is telling you you’re done, you’re really only 40 percent done.

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Toyota, The Green Tomato.

Challenge and Kaizen:

Comfort Zone/ Challenge Sign Concept

Toyota describes the two pillars of the Toyota Way as “Continuous Improvement” and “Respect for People”. Of this, the continuous improvement pillar is comprised of;

  1. Challenge
  2. Kaizen (change for the better), and
  3. Genchi Genbutsu (Go to the source and grasp the actual facts)

In this post, I will be looking at the “Challenge” aspect of the Continuous Improvement pillar.

Challenge – Why?

The secret to Toyota’s success is its ability to maintain itself as a learning organization. In 1967 P. M. Fitts and I. M. Posner identified three progressive phases of learning a new skill;

  • The cognitive stage – we understand the skill, but we make plenty of mistakes in the process. We are identifying strategies to do better.
  • The associative stage – we are getting better and making less mistakes.
  • The autonomous stage – we are pretty good at this point and can do the task on autopilot

The danger of the autonomous stage is that one starts to create a comfort zone for himself and stops “learning”. Thus, he reaches a plateau and his performance begins to degrade. He begins becoming complacent and accepting his performance saying that “this is good enough”. Unfortunately he is in a blind spot at this point and does not realize what is going on. This atmosphere is detrimental to kaizen.

“Challenge” thus becomes an important factor to sustain kaizen. The “challenge” is not necessarily personal as in challenging the employee to work harder. The “challenge” is in asking the employee to do his best and change the status quo – to be outside his comfort zone. The employee is allowed to make mistakes and in turn is expected to learn from mistakes. The employee continues improving through continuous learning.

Final Words:

Yoshio Ishizaka, a Toyota veteran explained challenge as follows;

Challenge guides us to setting higher objectives for achieving an ideal condition and continuously realizing such goals with courage and creativity.

I will finish off with a funny Zen story about learning;

The son of a master thief asked his father to teach him the secrets of the trade. The old thief agreed and that night took his son to burglarize a large house. While the family was asleep, he silently led his young apprentice into a room that contained a clothes closet. The father told his son to go into the closet to pick out some clothes. When he did, his father quickly shut the door and locked him in. Then he went back outside, knocked loudly on the front door, thereby waking the family, and quickly slipped away before anyone saw him. Hours later, his son returned home, bedraggled and exhausted. “Father,” he cried angrily, “Why did you lock me in that closet? If I hadn’t been made desperate by my fear of getting caught, I never would have escaped. It took all my ingenuity to get out!” The old thief smiled. “Son, you have had your first lesson in the art of burglary.”

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Monument, Dynamo and Suitcase.

Giving Time for Kaizen to Work:

time for kaizen

In today’s post I will look at kaizen and the need to allow time for an improvement to work. I am sometimes at fault about needing things to work immediately. This is a form of instant gratification – the desire to experience the results immediately. There are mainly two forms of kaizen discussed in lean literature – kaizen (small improvements) and innovation (drastic change usually involving equipment or technology). There are also medium sized improvements, and most of the time these do not result in an improvement in productivity immediately.

Shigeo Shingo and Lillian Gilbreth:

Shigeo Shingo was a consultant trainer at Toyota, and he specialized in Industrial Engineering. Shingo has written several books regarding TPS. In his book, “Key Strategies for Plant Improvement” he talked about the importance of allowing time for improvement activities to work. He referenced the “tabletop experiments” by Lillian Gilbreth as part of this. Alan Robinson along with his wife Margaret, wrote a great paper on the tabletop experiments called “On the Tabletop Improvement Experiments of Japan”. This paper talked about the contributions of Lillian Gilbreth and how her training materials were extensively used by the Japanese, and eventually by Shingo as part of his training at Toyota.

Shingo’s thinking was that the operators need to be familiar with the operation to truly feel that they are easy to do. If the steps are not familiar they have to exert their mind to think of what to do next, and this leads to mental fatigue, and thus may not result in an improvement in productivity.

Shingo discussed two experiments (Lillian had created more experiments) in his book. In the first experiment, the operator was required to write “production engineering” on 15 cards. This was a familiar phrase for the operator, and the productivity remained stable – all the cards took about the same time. The second experiment required the operator to skip every other letter, thus he was to write “poutoegneig”. The only stipulation was that he could not look at his previous work. From a work load standpoint, the number of letters were now about halved, thus it should had been a lot easier. However, the operator took a lot more time than the first experiment initially since he had to exert more time to think. After seven trials, he was able to write the word faster since he grew familiar with the phrase. The fifteenth card took about half the time as the first experiment.

Final Words:

The more I learn about Lillian Gilbreth, the more admiration I have for her. I have written about her before. The improvements may not immediately result in an increase in productivity. It is important that you understand that as part of kaizen, a certain amount of time is needed for practice to truly result in the improvement. The challenge here is – the old ways appear easier since the operator is familiar with it. Thus he may oppose the change even if it might actually reduce the work content and reduces the non-value added activities. It might be beneficial to have a standard amount of time for “sticking with the kaizen” to try it out. Rely on your data collected at the Gemba.

I will finish off with a Zen story I like a lot. This story is about how we perceive our experiences;

A student went to see his meditation teacher and said, “My situation is horrible! I feel so distracted most of the time, or my legs ache, or I’m repeatedly falling asleep. It’s terrible.” Said the teacher matter-of-factly, “It will pass.”

A week later, the student returned to his teacher. “My meditation is wonderful! I feel so ecstatically joyous and alive!” The teacher told him, “It will pass.”

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was PDCA and the Roads to Rome.

The Many Flavors of Kaizen:


In today’s post I will be writing about the many flavors of kaizen. I have been writing for over a year now. It seems that I keep coming back to kaizen. Kaizen is the spirit of lean, and can be translated from Japanese as “change for the better”. What is today is not good enough, and everything can be improved in small or big steps.

There are mainly five flavors that I have identified regarding kaizen. They are;

  1. Kaizen – small incremental improvement activities
  2. Kaizen Teian – Employee Suggestion Program
  3. QC Circles
  4. Jishuken
  5. Kaizen Blitz/Event or Rapid Improvement Activity

Kaizen – Small Incremental Improvement:

Taiichi Ohno said “where there is no standard, there can be no kaizen”. His intent was that you keep improving your standard towards the ideal state. This is the essence of the Job Method program that was taught as part of the Training Within Industry program. This is where employees are encouraged to ask why a step is done in a specific manner and how an operation can be improved. Job Method program provides specific steps to do this. Ohno modified this to suit Toyota. The Job Method program was replaced by Shigeo Shingo’s P-Courses that had time and motion studies, and process and operation analysis. These courses were derived strongly from the courses taught by the Gilbreths in the early 1900’s. This type of activity is generally performed at the individual level and is thus local. These can be viewed as bottom-up kaizen.

Kaizen Teian – Employee Suggestion Program:

Eiji Toyoda went to America to learn from Ford in the 1950’s. Although he was not impressed with many things, one thing really caught his attention. This was Ford’s employee suggestion program. He brought that back to Japan and implemented it at Toyota. This really took hold in Toyota. Toyota became famous for the company with 20 million ideas in 40 years. The ideas that the employees suggest are specific to their jobs, and everybody participates in this. This type of activity is generally at the individual level and is thus local. These can be viewed as bottom-up kaizen.

QC Circles:

QC Circles are small groups of employees who voluntarily meet after work to focus on specific problems related to quality or processes. QC Circles were developed as part of the Total Quality Movement. Masao Nemoto, who is considered to be the strong force behind establishing the Quality Control program at Toyota, has indicated that the goal of QC Circles was to raise consciousness of line workers towards quality. There were a lot of improvement activities that resulted from the QC Circle activities. This type of activity is team based and generally led by a local leader like a supervisor. These can be viewed as bottom-up kaizen.


Jishuken started off as a program by Toyota around 1975 for teaching suppliers how to do kaizen or implement TPS. This became a medium for training managers and other leaders in middle management. Jishuken is loosely translated as “self-study groups”. This activity generally tackles a hard project, and is seen as way to provide learning and being exposed to the gemba.  Jishuken events are also sometimes referred to as management driven kaizen activities. There is some flexibility regarding the duration of the event. There are some similarities to Kaizen events – these are team based and cross-functional in nature. These can be viewed as top-down kaizen.

Kaizen Events:

This is perhaps the most common “kaizen” identified by lean practitioners outside of Toyota. As with many things in Lean, Toyota does not practice kaizen events. This is generally a weeklong event comprising of a cross-functional team. This can be viewed as top-down kaizen.

Final Words:

It is an interesting question as to whether kaizen should be top-down or bottom-up. My thinking on this is that top management should lay the framework for kaizen to be present across the organization. The responsibility and duty for ensuring bottom-up kaizen lies with top management. Ultimately, the end goal is to get everybody to execute improvement activities so that the organization itself improves systematically. Every improvement activity should align with the organization goals and vision.I will finish off with an anecdote from Taiichi Ohno that looks at the unique relationship of top-down and bottom-up management and the need for a strong change-agent who is also a visionary.

Taiichi Ohno is the father of Toyota Production System. He first started implementing his ideas locally in his department. He faced a lot of resistance. His ideas were very counterintuitive and were against the common wisdom at that time.

Ohno was just a middle level manager. In this regard, what he did can be considered to be bottom-up. However, he had strong support from Eiji Toyoda and Saito Naichi, under whom Ohno worked for 35 years. Ohno later on talked about the positive phenomenon of the silent relationship between them in his book “Just-In-Time For Today and Tomorrow”.

There were a lot of people, including those in management who were against Ohno. However, all this anger and resentment were absorbed by Eiji and Saito. They acted as a buffer between Ohno and the factory. They never mentioned anything to Ohno. They wanted Ohno to keep on going with his improvement activities to reduce manufacturing costs. It was initially called as Ohno System since “Toyota” was not completely on board yet.  Eiji, Saito and Ohno were bound by an invisible thread of mutual trust. Ohno said the following about this;

“I knew all too well how they worried about me and what I was doing. Yet they never said “Do this!” or “Do that!”. For my part, I never had to say “I’d like to do this” or “Please let me do that.” I just did everything I thought had to be done. Had I asked permission, my resolve would have weakened because of the pressure to prove what I was doing. Had either side said anything, the relationship would have collapsed.”

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Reflecting on Hansei.

Improving the Understanding of Kaizen:


Kaizen is probably one of the most versatile terms in Lean. I have written several posts on kaizen. In today’s post, I will be looking at improving the understanding of kaizen. In Japanese, the word “kaizen” means to change for the better. Kaizen has come to mean several things – from “continuous improvement” to “kaizen events”. I will be sticking with the idea of change for the better.

From a philosophical standpoint, kaizen can happen two ways;

  • Problem solving kaizen – improvement through solving a problem
  • Kaizen – improvement through making things better

1 – Problem Solving Kaizen:

In the lean world, a problem is always defined as a deviation from the established standard. It is the gap between the current state (what it is now) and the ideal state (what it should be = established standard). As part of solving the problem, you may find a better way to surpass the established standard to a better state. This is shown below:

problemsolving kaizen

If you stop at just reaching the established standard, you may have solved the problem, but you have not made it better. Once you go higher, you have made an improvement.

2 – Kaizen – Making Things Better:

The established standard is never the best state. It is simply the state that was determined to be the acceptable standard. If we are at that level, we can expect to be performing as intended.

Making things better

Improving from the state of current standard is actually a hard task. From a production standpoint, the current state matches the established standard. However, your desired standard is higher than the established standard. This very much depends upon you and this is a hard skill to master. The extent of the kaizen depends upon the gap between the established standard and your desired standard. You can achieve this only through the belief that the current established standard is not acceptable.

This type of kaizen can be achieved by;

  1. Developing an attitude that the established standard is not acceptable.
  2. Going to the Gemba (the actual workplace). Gemba is your teacher.
  3. Understanding the current standard.
  4. Looking for waste and putting countermeasures in place.
  5. Developing others to practice steps 1 through 4.

There are several stories about Taiichi Ohno (the founder of Toyota Production System) drawing a chalk circle on the floor and asking the supervisor to stand in the circle and observe. The supervisor would stand in the circle for hours until Ohno was satisfied that the supervisor is able to see the wastes.

No task is 100% value added and free of waste. In Japanese, the term for waste is “muda”. Muda means “no value” (mu = no, da = value). Thus, muda represents non-value adding tasks. This itself has a deeper meaning. A component that is produced from a CNC machine has value. However, if the component that is produced is not needed right now by the next station, then it does not have any value. Thus, this excess inventory is identified as a form of waste in lean.

Final Words:

I have seen that the best kind of kaizen comes when you are either very lazy or very dissatisfied with something. Both of these paths lead to “there must be a better way of doing this”.

I will finish off with a story about my four year old nephew, Aaron, and how he did some problem solving on his own.

My brother has an Ipad that he allows my nephew to play games on. One day my brother and sister-in-law realized that Aaron had been watching Disney cartoons on the YouTube app. Aaron was three at the time and did not truly know how to spell words. They were surprised that he was able to find the cartoons on his own.

My brother and my sister-in-law could not figure out how Aaron was able to find the Disney cartoons on YouTube since he could not type any words to search. Aaron was not in the mood to explain how he did it either. My brother decided to watch Aaron the next time he was playing on the Ipad. Finally my brother understood what was going on. Aaron was clicking on the microphone button on the keyboard and saying the words aloud. Aaron had figured out that he could use the microphone to search. Aaron had solved the problem all by himself.

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was The Idea of Wa in Nemawashi.

The Goal of Lean:


I was talking to my friend at work, who I consider to be very knowledgeable and wise. He told me something that I have not heard before.

“Good, better, best. Never let it rest. ‘Til your good is better, and your better is best.”

I looked this up, and I saw that this quote is attributed to St. Jerome (347-420 A.D). This succinctly summarizes the idea of kaizen. Kaizen is Japanese for “change for the better”. It is not asking you to change from good to best, overnight. It is asking you to change from good to better, and then from better to best. The advice of “never let it rest” indicates that it is an ongoing process. The best is always yet to come.

It is a Journey:

I have often heard about lean being a journey and not a destination. This means that you are not to look at lean as an end goal. It is about improving little by little and is never ending. It is an ongoing journey where your goal is to simply improve from the day before. Counter-intuitively the goal of lean is not to set a goal that is attained and to stop doing lean. The goal of lean is to just do lean.

In this regard, lean does not talk about setting goals. It focuses on creating a self-sustaining system – a never-stopping engine that keeps moving towards the ideal state. Lean is based on long term thinking, and in reality it never reaches the ideal state. However, the ideal state (true north) gives lean a direction to move towards.

I have written about “continuous improvement = kaizen + wisdom”. Instead of setting goals, we should focus on developing our people so that they are engaged in the continuous improvement philosophy. We should focus on setting up processes to ensure kaizen – working smarter and not harder. Develop your people to be aware of waste, and challenge them to improve their processes from where it was yesterday. This single system ensures that your organization keeps on moving towards the ideal state, referred to as True North by Toyota.

It is your job to lay the framework to make them good. Then it becomes their job to make it better. Finally it is both of your jobs to make it the best.

The Story of the Boy and the Jelly Beans:

I will finish this post with a modified version of a story I read a while back:

Once a boy went to a grocery store with his mother. The boy was very well behaved. The shopkeeper was very impressed with his gentle nature. He looked at the boy and pointed towards the glass jar of jelly beans and said.

“Dear child, you can take a handful of jelly beans out of this jar.”

The boy was very fond of jelly beans. He was very happy. He reached in the jar and grabbed a handful. He thanked the shopkeeper politely.

The next week, the boy again returned with his mother. He was again very well behaved. This time too, the shopkeeper invited the boy to take a handful of jelly beans. This time the boy hesitated and looked at his mother. His mother also said, “Take the sweets dear.” The young boy still did not do anything. He simply pointed at his mother. His mother thought that he was being shy and grabbed a handful for the child, and gave the handful to him. The child started smiling again, and thanked the shopkeeper.

Another week went by, and the boy returned to the shop with his mother again. The shopkeeper saw him and offered the jelly beans again. This time too, the boy did nothing. His mother offered to grab a handful. The boy stood still and then shook his head. Seeing this, the shopkeeper offered to grab a handful, and the boy slowly put out both his hands. The shopkeeper gave him a handful of jelly beans. The boy was again smiling and thanked the shopkeeper.

His mother was very curious about the boy’s behavior since she knew how much he loved jelly beans. When they got home, his mother asked him to explain his behavior over the weeks.

“The first time I grabbed a handful, and held your hand I realized that your hand is much larger than mine. I knew I would get more if you grabbed a handful.”

“This time, I saw that the shopkeeper had a larger hand than yours. So I waited until, he would give me a handful. See how much more jelly beans I got?”

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was The Mother of Modern Management.